Epic Poetry and the Moral Imagination

Medieval Christian poetry transformed the concept of heroism so that, even in the godless modern world, heroes are expected to be self-sacrificing.

The Idea of a Hero

THIS FALL I’VE BEEN TEACHING a course on Medieval Epic Poetry, a continuation of the Ancient Epic course I taught last spring, in which we read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, poems that are all deeply grounded in a pagan worldview but which examine human nature, and particularly human excellence, in such an authentic way that they continue to speak profoundly to readers in our own day. Still, the pagan world that produced those works valued things that sometimes run counter to Christian values, so their heroes may seem strange and not entirely admirable to a modern Christian. Nonetheless, all the poems we read in the Medieval Epic course are written by Christian poets who have, to one extent or another, appropriated the epic tradition and made it their own.

The carry-over of interest in epic into the Christian era shows, on the one hand, the powerful appeal of the epic form and, on the other hand, the way Christians have always been able to “baptize” the best of pagan culture.  One of the key, defining features of the ancient epic is the hero whose struggles are the focus of the story. For ancient Greeks and Romans, to be a hero meant to be, in some way, godlike. Many were literally half-divine, the child of a mortal  and an immortal, while others claimed such demigods as their ancestors. Their divine pedigree explained why these heroes so far excelled ordinary mortals in their exploits. But, if you know anything about the gods of Graeco-Roman mythology, you’ll realize that being “godlike” did not necessarily mean being “virtuous” in the ethical or moral sense. In fact, all it really meant was being super-humanly good at something, and being able to get away with things that would never be tolerated in mere mortals. These heroes are rarely what we today would regard as moral exemplars. Achilles, for instance, was noted for his godlike rage, which made him a most excellent warrior; but the Iliad makes no bones about the fact that Achilles turns his god-sized rage against his own friends and allies, and even prays (successfully) to Zeus that his friends will suffer mightily for having offended him. It’s odd that these ancient heroes were regarded as more to be admired than to be imitated.

The Christian Hero

THE CHRISTIAN POET who chose to wrote an epic tale had to wrestle with the problem of the hero–what should he be like, if not like Achilles or Odysseus? Could the pagan ideal of heroism be adapted to harmonize with Christian virtue? One way to deal with the problem is illustrated in the first work we read in the Medieval Epic course. Beowulf, a Norse hero tale reworked by a Christian monk for a Christian audience, presents a vibrant depiction of a pagan hero, but the poem is also a commentary on the inadequacy of pagan values. For the Christian, the greatest hero is always Jesus Christ Himself, who was not merely a “godlike” man but actually God-Made-Man. And He won the greatest possible victory, but at the greatest cost. In conquering sin and death—not through his power and might but through his deliberate and willing weakness and and death, Jesus sets a new standard for heroes, one that seems utterly opposed to those in pagan epics (see my earlier post on the Heliand for more on this).

For the Christian poet, every true hero must be, in some important way, Christ-like. Generally, this means that the hero will be self-sacrificing, as Beowulf is, saving his people from a dragon while dying as a result of his wounds. Another common feature of Christian hero tales is that we see the hero “harrowing Hell,”—i.e., either literally or figuratively redeeming the souls of the dead, as we find Aragorn doing in Tolkien’s The Return of the King (there is an analogous scene in Beowulf). Like Christ, the hero may win a great victory by virtue of his humility rather than his might, as another Tolkien character, Frodo the hobbit, does. (Tolkien, like the Beowulf poet, was inspired both by Germanic myth and by his Christian faith.)

In this final regard, however, Beowulf falls short—he is not a Christian, after all, and his insistence on fighting the dragon without assistance is a not an act of humble self-sacrifice intended to protect others from being injured or killed, but an act of hubris or pride, a magnificently heroic gesture of vainglory. And, as the poet shows us, “pride goeth before a fall.” Although he defeats his foe, Beowulf gets himself killed in the process, leaving his people undefended. And, left without a king, they are doomed to be destroyed by hostile neighbors who have nothing to fear in the absence of a powerful king. The Beowulf poet reminds his reader of this sad consequence at the end of the poem and thereby manages to pay homage to a great Danish hero only to expose the weakness of a culture that exalts vainglory over truly selfless heroism. Such a culture, the poem suggests, bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Sir Gawain: Moral Courage and Christian Humility

Gawain, a hero whose humiliation is his triumph

This is a message that also haunts the Arthurian literary tradition, as our class saw in the second work we read this semester, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Like Beowulf, this poem was written by a Christian poet for a Christian audience, but unlike the earlier story its hero is himself a Christian, Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur. Many elements of pagan (in this case, Celtic) mythology are also to be found in this poem, but these reside in the antagonist, not the protagonist. Sir Gawain manages to come out of the conflict a victor, albeit a flawed one, who flinches at a crucial moment but still wins a moral victory rather than one achieved by physical or mental prowess. Flawed though Gawain may be, here we see a true Christian hero, one who acknowledges his flaw, who is humbled by it, and who willingly and penitentially wears a badge of shame as he returns to King Arthur’s court.

The noble lords and ladies of Arthur’s court, however, do not recognize the penitential significance of the green sash that marks Gawain’s shame. Instead, they admire it as a trophy of victory and even decide to wear a similar sash, the way modern sports enthusiasts sport “fan gear” bearing the number of their favorite linebacker. The marked contrast between Gawain’s shame and humility and the admiration of Arthur’s court indicates the vainglory of the court and signals the difference between nobility of birth and nobility of character. The contrast between Gawain’s humility and penitence and the attitude of the court, which values bravado more than humility, foreshadows the ultimate downfall of Arthur’s realm. It’s interesting, and significant, that both of these medieval English hero tales point to contrasting sets of values and the way a lack of Christian motive can spell doom not just for the individual but for a whole society.

Is Heroism Dead?

IN MANY WAYS, our contemporary culture has more in common with the ancient pagan worldview than with the medieval Christian one. Modern folk are more likely to admire the battle rage of Achilles or the self-serving cleverness of Odysseus than the humility of Gawain. Yet it is remarkable that, if you were to ask ordinary people to name a defining characteristic of a hero, most would say that a hero must be self-sacrificing. They might cite a firefighter who risks his life returning to a burning building to rescue a cat, or a bystander who risks injury or even death to save a woman from a mugger. To this extent then, the Christian concept of the hero as one who risks his own life to save the weak and the innocent has made a lasting impression on the modern imagination.

Unfortunately, too many popular “heroes” resemble degraded versions of Achilles or Odysseus, excelling at a single (perhaps inconsequential) thing, while presenting poor examples as human beings: professional athletes who break records in their sports but live lives of disgusting excess and moral depravity, celebrities who shamelessly parade their vile lifestyles before the public eye, wealthy executives who make millions even when they destroy the businesses they run, and so on.  These decadent “heroes” risk nothing but expect to have everything, and they infect the popular imagination like a virulent social disease.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the study of the epic tradition continues to thrive in Christian environments, such as “classical” Christian academies, homeschool curricula, Catholic liberal arts colleges, etc. What was, for thousands of years, a mainstream cultural ideal has been abandoned by the modern world, leaving a great impoverishment of the modern moral imagination. But this ideal continues to thrive in what is now the Christian counter-culture, among those who still aspire, themselves and their children, to live lives that transcend the degraded mundane existence that has become the “new normal.” Anyone depressed or disgusted by our toxic contemporary culture, anyone who aspires to be a member of the new moral counter-culture, could do much worse than to pick up one of the great works of the epic literary tradition and catch a glimpse of true heroism.

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